Friday, 13 March 2015

The Whale

Growing up were we forced to read Moby Dick by Herman Melville in school. I didn't like it because I was being forced to read it, and had many a good laugh at the word “dick” on the front cover. Heh, dick. Well, I was around 14 after all, and I can tell you that the Denis Murphy of 1999 wasn't exactly a mature guy. Then again, I'm not entirely mature right now, but at least since then I've re-read Moby Dick and now appreciate it beyond being a good source of dick jokes. Also, since my introduction to Melville's book I've seen many adaptations of it. Some are pretty decent while others and just awful, with The Asylum's 2010: Moby Dick being the worst offender of the lot. So nearing Christmas 2013 I was pleased to see that the BBC were airing their own take on the story. However, has this tale already been told to the point of overkill?


Directed by Alrick Riley and out now on Blu-Ray and DVD comes The Whale, a take on Moby Dick that isn't a masterpiece, but ends up being a pretty great watch. First off though, this isn't exactly a direct adaptation of the book Moby Dick. Instead, The Whale is actually based upon the real-life incident that inspired Melville to write Moby Dick. Essentially the story is the exact same, but basing this upon true events instantly makes The Whale far more exciting to watch than yet another straight Moby Dick adaptation. The story is told through voice over and flashbacks of an aged Thomas Nickerson, a man who served aboard the Essex whaling ship in 1820 when he was a young boy. During these flashbacks The Whale covers the whaling expedition, the attack by the giant sperm whale that ultimately sunk the Essex, and the fight for survival among the remaining crew; a fight that is both in equal parts physical and psychological. It's tale about whalers hell bent on coming back home with something to show for it, and with whale oil being in high demand in the 1820's, the pressure was on even before they left the shore. 


The Whale is at its best when it focuses on the most compelling aspect of the entire incident surrounding the sinking of the Essex- its crew. Thankfully to portray the crew of the Essex, the makers of The Whale has compiled a pretty great cast. Aside from the fact that Martin Sheen plays an aged Nickerson rather nicely, with his superb voice adding a decent layer of gravitas to the film, three other actors stand out among the rest. First up there's Jonas Armstrong, who I previously enjoyed in the BBC's 2008 Robin Hood series, and he plays First Mate of the Essex, Owen Chase. Then there's  Adam Rayner who plays Captain George Pollock, the man who essentially served as the blueprint to Moby Dick's Captain Ahab. However, compared to the obsessive and almost dangerous nature of Ahab, Rayner plays Pollock as a man that may be too weak when thrust into the situation he finds himself and his crew in. Hidden among the rest of the cast is up-and-coming actor John Boyega, who all of us most likely know as the guy starring in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and he does a wonderful job here as William Bond. That said, almost everyone in the cast are highly watchable, with even Paul Kaye (aka Mike Strutter) chipping in as the heavily bearded Matthew Joy.

It's a nicely shot film too, with all the scenes on the Essex before, during and after the sperm whale attack looking authentic and incredibly well put together. Once the shit hits the fan the action is pretty great too, and the sheer size of the whale is shown to chilling effect, without ever really showing the viewer an up-close perfect view of a CGI sperm whale. It hides the creature just enough to scare the shit out of you. Beyond that The Whale deals with some pretty great human struggles in the wake of the whales attack. From the chain of command being challenged to the crew either accepting or refusing their own mortalities, The Whale kind of reminded me of Das Boot in terms of human conflict and drama, as well of course due to its setting.


Overall The Whale is a pretty great offering from the BBC. It may not be as action packed as the upcoming Ron Howard film based upon the same incident, but it's a character driven drama that's engaging, moving and more about the human struggle the crew of the Essex went through, instead of the whale who sank their ship.

The Whale is unsinkable and gets a 4/5.

★★★★☆

Denis Murphy


The Whale at CeX


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